A few months after I became a member of a cheap gym in Hell’s Kitchen, it dawned on me I had visited the place only once—when I signed up. I needed professional help.
The trainer occupies an odd position in our lives: despite often being someone you would have never met outside of the gym, he’s privy to your tenderest intimacies and physical vulnerabilities. Like a parent or spouse, he criticizes your smoking, drinking and eating habits, and you actually feel guilty. You’re his boss, sort of, but he’s also yours.
I’d long thought of trainers as an indulgence of the well-to-do. Paying someone to perfect my body seemed a sexy soupçon of vanity and sloth, as decadent as having a private chef. Then again, I told myself, maybe my suffering would lend the endeavor just enough wholesomeness to preserve my radicalism. Plus, the first session was free.
“Do you work out?” my taskmaster, Bashar, asked me, 15 minutes into our introductory session, as I struggled to bench-press the bar. Since I had not done anything more strenuous, for years, than bounce along on the elliptical for the duration of a medium-length Terry Gross interview and two Rihanna singles, I lied.
He laughed. “You’re crazy. I never meet anyone like you.”
He was 33, the son of Palestinian immigrants. He was sinewy, a lean, healthy looking alternative to the Pumping Iron vogue that—news flash, gym-absentees—still hasn’t gone away. He noticed my Observer T-shirt and asked if I was a writer, and if I could write about him for “a paper people read,” like the Daily News. When I demurred, he proposed that I help him create his own magazine instead. This was the only power I had over him—the power of the pen—and he piled on more reps each time I expressed reluctance about these projects.
“I’m going to make you a monster,” he would say.
In my daily life, the idea of exposing myself to five minutes of conversation, to say nothing of an hour of criticism, from someone like Bashar would have been unthinkable. I try not to throw up around anyone, certainly not during daytime hours. I don’t talk about the circumference of my arms.
But there’s something thrilling about paying someone to yell at you, a structured reminder of one’s frailty. Soon I was working out with Bashar twice a week. He asked me what rappers I liked, then mocked what I thought was a very credible answer. We had a camaraderie, though he laughed harder than I would have preferred whenever I sat backward on a piece of exercise machinery. And I didn’t love the way he took breaks to do his own reps or jokingly admire his physique in the mirror while asking me my opinion. These were the moments when I questioned who was in charge: was I really paying to watch Bashar preen, and to feel humiliatingly inadequate? He seemed to sense when he had gone too far, bringing me a bottle of water. “We gotta help each other, you and me.”
Sure, I’d think. Whatever.
“Are you on my side, or the other side?” Bashar asked me one day while I struggled to do a push-up.
I asked him what he meant. “Most people in this gym, you know, they for the other side,” he replied. Oh. The other side. I’d seen, though not intercepted, the long gazes in the locker room. I knew what he meant, and told him which side I was on. Had I ever even tried to be straight? he wondered. No, never, I said. “So how do you know, then?” He seemed to think maybe he could help me.
This was the point when the contrived intimacies of the trainer-client relationship went from useful to annoying. I realized why I chose to share my personal life with people I liked and trusted, and kept everyone else at arm’s length. Bashar had more control over my body than anyone with whom I’d never discussed what a good baby name “Eliot” is. So this is what he thought of me? Every time I started to rattle off my gay-rights talking points, he’d laugh and say, “Gimme another set!” When I pressed him further, he offered a revelation of his own: he couldn’t be prejudiced, he said, after what he’d seen in prison.
This was unexpected. I held on to just enough anger to make it through 12 reps. This, he told me, was why he’d needed me to write an article about him—to keep him from being sent back to jail. I couldn’t do that, I knew, but now he had my attention.
Later, I decided to meet Bashar outside the gym and hear more about his past. At a midtown Starbucks, he told me that, as a child, he was “the only Arab in Washington Heights. … Everybody looked at my family as aliens. And me as well.” To fit in with his neighbors, he said, he started hanging out in a drug dealer’s apartment at 13, and ended up running errands and eventually selling drugs for him. “I think it’s called being a product of your environment,” he said. He sold cocaine, but ever used only marijuana and ecstasy, he said.
He set out on his own at 16, running the corner of 154th and Broadway. As an outsider, he had an intuitive sense of how to pit gangs of different races against one another. Eventually, though, he sold drugs to an undercover cop. He did eight months at Rikers, where he allied with black gangs though he speaks Spanish. “The Middle East is actually located in Africa,” he told me, triumphantly.
His parents didn’t approve of his exploits, though they accepted the money he earned from dealing. They didn’t speak English, he told me, and had come to America only because his uncle told them there was gold in the streets.
Thanks to their acceptance of money, Bashar’s next arrest led his parents, his brother and his sister to be arrested, too; his mom and dad each did a year for money laundering. He took a deal for nine years at age 21. His lawyer told him, “At the end of the day, whether you go to trial or not, I’ll still be playing golf.” People had told him he needed to “hold it down” in jail, and protect himself from being raped. “But when I went upstate [to Five Points Correctional Facility], you gave respect, you got respect.” He was scrawny when he entered prison, but started working out with the help of fellow inmates. The physique he spent so much time gazing at in the mirror while I struggled was not a cosmetic choice but a form of armor. No wonder he told me I needed to become a “monster”; he’d had to do the same.
In the years since his release from prison, Bashar had a difficult time finding work. Bally and Equinox wouldn’t hire him, but my smaller, independent gym did. “I started helping people,” he said, noting that he had been inspired to train by his grandmother’s struggle to touch her toes, a struggle I shared.
So training me was part of his own self-improvement regimen? That felt a little too The Help for me. I asked him if it bothered him to have a gay client. “Everybody’s just there to get healthy and get big,” he said. “We just on different boats.” You give respect, you get respect.
Soon he’d be going to jail on another conviction, as an accessory to drug dealing. He’s scheduled to return to prison on Nov. 30, for a minimum of 57 months.
“I’ve accomplished so much now, and if I go back, what?” He sounded for the first time despondent. “Start all over again?”
I’ve stopped going to the gym since the Starbucks meeting. Chalk it up to a mix of mild early-winter depression, discomfort with watching Bashar work in his last days as a free man, and guilt that even writing an article wouldn’t do him any good. I told him I’d text him a day for our next training session, but instead found myself fielding texts from him: “What happen to u?”
I feel like I’ve gained a little weight, backslid a little. Not that I’m complaining. A few pounds will be the lightest thing either Bashar or I have borne.